by Angela Zito

Eight years in Catholic school, from which I liberated myself at the age of fourteen into public junior high, has put me into a Facebook flurry right now among former Catholic school kids now grown up. The slow-burning scandal of child-abuse covered up, which started in the minds of many as an American brush fire in 1985 in Louisiana (and which was, in the words of Hendrik Hertzberg in the New Yorker this week: “dismissed as an epiphenomenon of America’s sexual libertinism and religious indiscipline,”)  has burned right up to the Vatican’s door. Like a horrible slo-mo tennis match, we’ve had new accusations served and returned with ever-more ridiculous attempts by the Church hierarchy to defend the indefensible. (And for a comic round-up of the Church’s “blame game,” visit Mary Elizabeth Williams at Salon.)

The critics refuse to approach the problem as the Vatican has, “one sinning priest at a time,” and look instead for structural reasons for the abuse of kids, and for its cover-up. They have attacked hierarchy, the exclusion of women, and celibacy. But in searching for reasons and reforms, they often conflate the problems of abuse and cover-up, thus conflating the psychological and individual with the bureaucratic and communal. I’d like to try to untangle that knot just a bit.

Hierarchy itself is favored by Hertzberg and Mary Hunt over at Religion Dispatches, who says:

…what comes into sharper and sharper focus with each new hideous revelation is that the hierarchical model of the Church, with absolute authority vested in a few individuals at each step up the ladder (a priest in his parish, a bishop in his diocese, a pope in Rome) is in and of itself a danger zone. Human organizations, especially religious ones, need more checks and balances to assure that those who have unfettered access to the young and privileged relationships with the spiritually vulnerable are monitored.

Pointing to the hierarchical structure alone seems to provide the widest explanation, able to account for both abuse and its denial because what we’re talking about here is power itself.  Power over young people, power over the spiritual lives of the faithful, and the power to keep a secret to protect the privilege of the hierarchy itself.

Hunt also notes that, “Simply changing those in leadership, even adding women to a hopelessly flawed structure, will not be sufficient.”

But some do specifically blame the exclusion of women for the root of the problem, like Maureen Dowd, another Catholic School girl grown up, and screaming with all the anguish of a betrayed believer. In “A World Without Women“ (the fifth and latest in a series of columns that started on March 28 with “A Nope for Pope“) Dowd writes:

Negating women is at the heart of the church’s hideous — and criminal — indifference to the welfare of boys and girls in its priests’ care…. No wonder that, having closed themselves off from women and everything maternal, they treated children as collateral damage, a necessary sacrifice to save face for Mother Church.

Are we willing to side with Dowd in this mater, er matter?

Do we need more maternal feeling in the bureaucracy of “Mother Church” already dedicated to the cult of the Mother of Christ? (Worthy of its own essay is this problem of replacing real women who might sit at the desk next to you with female saints and goddesses who never talk back, are always smiling…But I digress.)  Good as it sounds, imagining that there is something intrinsically present in women’s maternal “nature” that lessens violence around them does not answer why, in homes around the world, mothers and daughters often make no difference when it comes to stopping domestic abuse.  In fact, the Irish Central, New York’s Irish American newspaper, gave Dowd a “nothing special about women“ riposte.

The “world without women” of the Church administrative hierarchy rests on both the denial of women’s ordination (bureaucracy) and the celibacy of priests (sex). Ordination is a policy about the public workplace; celibacy is a policy about personal sexual lives. Both lead to an absence of women in the Church hierarchy in positions of power, but for different reasons: one collective and the other individual.

Catherine of Sienna

So if there is something important about the exclusion of women here, it is less about their personal, intrinsic non-violent, kindly maternal natures. To argue that would be to imply, in the shocked words of male dinner companions, that “because men don’t bear children, they cannot understand fatherly devotion and kindness to children.” Which would be to argue the problem solely from the perspective of  personal experience. It would be saying that being a celibate priest robs men of diaper-changing fatherhood, one guy at a time, a logic far too similar to the Vatican’s treating the problem individually, “one sinner at a time.” The most recent Church defense of linking pedophilia to homosexuality in the ranks, despite all scientific evidence to the contrary,  not only unfairly scapegoats gay priests, it also once again reduces the problem to an individualized “hate the sin, love the sinner” approach.

These tactics not only ignore the structure of hierarchy, they ignore how human communities are formed. Arguing solely from personal experience shuts out the possibility that our experiences are formed together through conversation and close relationships with people whose individual experiences might be completely different from our own yet who are closely involved in our everyday communal life. Even gay or female people.

For instance, though childless,  I know many women in my academic community who have children. Many are deep personal friends whom I love. But I also respect them because as members of our community we work to build a life together in academia. We discuss their motherhood all the time: I am familiar with their problems, personally, and as they bear on our daily work-life. I have an imagination that allows me to understand their circumstances, as do we all (as do the men who are deprived of the bio-experience of bearing children!)

This is what Rev. James Martin, S.J. argues in Salon in his  passionate defense of celibacy as opening its priests to an imagination of love wider than spouse and family.

One of the many goals of celibacy is to love people as freely as possible and as profoundly as possible. That may seem strange to those used to defining religious chastity negatively — that is, as not having sex. But this has long been the tradition of the Church. Besides its other roots, religious chastity was meant as another way to love others and serve the community. As such, it may have something to teach everyone, not just priests, brothers, and sisters.

Human beings form communities imaginatively, by being able to make metaphors for action for themselves out of the strangely different, yet seductively engaging life-experiences of beloved Others.  Not just any others, but people with whom you live, work and struggle. Up close. Every day. We are always alone together. The Church has no women’s experiences enriching the daily life of administrative work or its workers, no openly gay people to challenge the imagination of its hierarchy. Whether women, gay or straight, get there by ordination, by marrying priests, or by coming out does not matter—I leave that to the theologians.

Even after the many individual criminals harbored by the church repent and have found forgiveness, the Pope’s latest advice, or even better,  been brought to trial and justice one by one, we will still have the problem of the hierarchy that fostered by denial this abuse.  If the church does not enrich that hierarchy by opening its imagination to the shared daily experiences of women and its gay priests, in its very own work life of leading the faithful then it will have learned nothing from this crisis. It will have missed a chance to transform from hierarchy to community.

Worse, if the solution is limited to prosecuting and forgiving a bunch of bad priests, the demonizing critique of the Church’s problem as particular to itself and its rules of celibacy will blind us to the wider problem of the similar failures of other social institutions to protect children.

The ongoing abuse of the vulnerable: children, the elderly, patients in hospitals, the poor, women themselves in situations of violent and structural disadvantage, is hardly a simple  problem of one bad guy at a time, committing one sin at a time. And hardly just a problem of the Church.

Angela Zito is a professor of religious studies and anthropology and co-Director of the Center for Religion and Media at New York University.  She is publisher of The Revealer.

This article has been mentioned here, here and here.